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Her slow and unstable steps were leading her towards an entry she had been denied access for 32 years. Stood right in front of her, soullessly, the same old wooden door that had ushered her whole family into the back of a truck with nothing but their clothes, their tight grip to each other and their weeping hearts. Without shame or regret. Uninspired by the turmoil she had been through since she was forced to leave it behind. And completely untouched by the longing she had swallowed in all these years, to hear those metal hinges connecting her to her memories, once again. A yearning shows now used to. The heart ache to be right here, one more time.
Despite the ravage of time, behind those doors the memories of her marriage, her 2 sons’ and two daughters’ birth, their childhood and all their life stories were kept intact. Or rather she hoped they were. Her gaze fixed. Her feet heavy. She couldn’t wrap her mind around the emotions that were taking over. Was she anxious? Was she joyful? Was it a whirlwind of conflicting feelings wrapped in 32 years of melancholy that was making her press the key in her palm so hard?
She wasn’t really looking around. Absorbed in the moment and what it was bearing she noticed that nothing had really changed about the entrance. Every detail almost exactly the same as how they left it. Just beaten up by pillage and plunder. Was this tyranny a reflection of her own life in exile?
The second round of Saddam Hussein’s banishment of the Iranian decent citizens changed her life and the life of her family in unfathomable ways. They had all survived the first round of terror a few years back but the uncertainty was ever present. Even though she and her husband had both lost their older brothers to a common rule, they were grateful that their two sons had not been discovered or sought after yet. Being born in Iraq, to an Iranian bloodline, you would get a red stamp in your birth certificate. A proof of not being purely Arab. That red stamp allowed the government to end the life of the first born son of the family. No questions asked. It was the rule. And then, the crack downs. Guards would appear at the door, force everyone out without allowing them to take any belongings. They would be searched to make sure they are not carrying any valuables such as cash or gold. They would be loaded at a back of a truck, taken to the border of Iran-Iraq and left abandoned, men, women, children. Once you were an Ajam Iraqi there was little you had control over.
What have we humans done? How have we written the pages of our history? From East to West. From North to South. Is cruelty the most common denominator? When is this trend going to stop?
“ My first son wasn’t killed. But I guess the fear that was always looming over his head led him to a very early departure of this world. He was a Mechanical Engineer and died in a bike accident in his early twenties. I hadn’t quite mourned for him when one day I get a call. My husband was arrested at his store and delivered to the border, I was told. He had a red stamp in his birth certificate. We both did. His great great parents were from Iran. They were forced to Iraq for religious reasons. As for me, I was born in Iran. I spoke Farsi until my family was forced to leave Iran and go to Iraq, where they were originally from. I learned to speak Arabic in school later in life. We were all considered Ajam Iraqi in Iraq and Arab Irani in Iran. We were considered second tier citizens in both countries. With any change in politics, we were the closest to receive cruelty and violence, right behind the Kurds in line.
When Saddam’s soldiers took my husband that day in February of 1979, they didn’t even give him the opportunity to call home and let us know. After being dropped at the border in Iran, with much difficulty he found his way to Tehran after a few days where he was led to a mosque. All Iranian descent Arabs were housed in that mosque until they could afford to get out or they were picked up by a relative or a friend. We were amongst the lucky ones, I guess. My husband had business correspondents in Tehran. They picked him up after a few days and housed him. I was alone in Iraq with three children and an unborn baby.”
My oldest daughter was in medical school. She ranked the highest among medical students all over Iraq the year before. She received appreciation from Saddam Hussein personally through a visit and was awarded a one month trip to Europe. She had one more year to become a Medical Doctor. Her younger brother, my second son was one year away from becoming an Electrical Engineer. After losing my oldest son to a bike accident, now he was considered the oldest son of the family and his neck was on the line. We were all living our lives in a state of suspension. On the edge and watchful at all times.
My husband was now gone for three months and I was 32 weeks pregnant. We still weren’t sure what to do. Where to live. How to proceed. However on that beautiful day in May of 1980, the pounding on the door answered many of our doubts and questions.
We could hear the tumult in the street. I knew it can’t be good news. I knew my son was on his way home. My heart sank with the thought of him being captured but I didn’t have much time to worry. Before I could gather myself they were banging on our door. All I could do was to get the girls together. Before they pushed the door open I collected all my gold and dumped them all into the pot of stew I was cooking for lunch. Whatever cash I could collect, I threw into the deep pockets of our Abaya, only hoping and praying that they would not be discovered. In a flash of lightning, the soldiers were all over our yard. They were leading us to exile. They had orders to drop every single person with a red stamp in their birth certificate at the border. They were ordered not to allow us to take any belongings with us. Most of them followed the orders except for one kind hearted young man who made a significant difference in the course of our lives. I still remember his face clearly.”
Moments like this, when you are at the edge of your being, suspended by the most delicate string of “ choice” determine your faith and the rest of the story of your life. Moments like this can dramatically influence not only your own future but the future of every life you come in contact with. The future of the world.
In moments like this where do humans drive the power to NOT fall into pieces? How do some people come down so hard, lose everything their lives depended on, and still get right back up and re-invent themselves? It seems as if, without your choice, you are given a whole new blank canvas to start fresh.
You didn’t choose the canvas, can you choose what you will draw on it?
“ Thirty two weeks pregnant, accompanied by other exiled Ajam Iraqis and my two young daughters, we were ushered to the border and dropped off in the middle of nowhere like unwanted goods as if we never shared the same society. How we found our way to Tehran and reconnected with my husband is a whole other story.
Did I mention my son? Perhaps I didn’t. The events of the day were so sudden and so unpredictable that it’s hard to remember all the pieces.
On his way home from college that day in May my son noticed the turmoil in the street and climbed up the roofs. He watched the sad masquerade from atop, sought shelter in friends’ homes for a while and eventually fled from Iraq with a fake passport and joined us in Tehran. Mind you if I emphasize that all these events happened at a time when we could hardly make a long distance call to hear from each other, let alone getting daily updates. There would be days that I would wonder if he’s still alive. There was no way of knowing. I guess suspense has been my best friend as long as I remember.”
Sometimes you meet someone and without knowing them you can sense they have an ocean for a heart and a mountain for life experiences. She was one of those people.
Communication was not easy since she spoke Arabic. An Arab Iranian, or an Irani Arab. Belonging to neither, and carrying both at heart at the same time. Generation after generation, some only speak Farsi and some only Arabic. A cycle that hasn’t been broken for centuries. She didn’t choose to be born to the bloodline of the Muslim Imams. Her great great grand parents were shunned from Iraq to Iran for their heritage. For more than two hundred years they have been exiled from this homeland to the other. And every time they had to re-invent themselves. Is there a doubt left about their resilience? She paid for wrongs she had never done with her life and the life of her children. And she is not alone. Her story is more common than we like to believe. Kurds, Arabs, Luhrs, Iranis, Iraqis, Jews, Muslims, Christians, Sunnis, Shiits, we all share the suffering rooted in “us versus them”.
Is this train ever going to stop? Will there ever be a time that we come to the deep understanding that we are all one human body? What is each individual’s responsibility to change the story of racism from here on? What is the small change I can bring to the world?
Later I learned that her oldest daughter could never finish school and become a doctor since her education was not accepted and approved of, in Iran. Her older son quit Engineering and became a businessman since he was bullied at college for not speaking Farsi. The younger daughter fled from Iran, illegally and sought refuge in Canada. Was it an effort to break the chain? And the unborn child that was carried in amnionic fluid through exile, speaks three languages fluidly and is a citizen of the world.
After Saddam Hussein was overthrown with much effort and patience they were able to retrieve their childhood home back in Iraq and once again step into their childhood home. The heart ache of her husband not being by her side over shadowed the joy. His health declined rapidly after the move and he passed away before due time. Her one hope was to find that kind hearted soldier that saw the helpless look in the eyes of that pregnant woman some 32 years ago and allowed her to carry her pot of stew across the border. The “golden” stew that made it possible for them to survive in Iran and rebuild their lives. Perhaps this is what that has kept humanity flourishing despite the cruelty written on the pages of history:
A moment of kindness,
One act of compassion,
A single human connection.